by Lothe al’Varia in Dark Ages
Author’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any aisling, living or dead, reflected in any of the characters, is coincidental.
I. Shady Characters
Aaron was a commanding presence. His blue eyes were piercing, as though they revealed the secrets of whomever his gaze was set on. He was roughly an inch taller than anyone else he’d ever met, adding to the imposing look he carried.
Aaron was usually dressed in a plain lorica, brown leather carefully tanned and tailored so it could resist many blows. The man’s hair was blue, spiked, and Aaron took pride in some of the looks he got for it. Aaron always carried a large, shining battle sword, a sword his father had carried into combat, and his father before him, and so on, and everyone in the line had kept the blade impeccably polished.
Aaron enjoyed the hunt. To hunt until he could be proclaimed a true Master of his path was not his goal. He wanted a moment to be isolated from the world, contained entirely within the passion of combat. This, ironically, was Aaron’s time to “think”.
The sun was at its zenith that day, shining down on the world at a temperature comfortable for living. Aaron walked calmly through a clearing in the woods, removed from the world at large. With him was his friend Randolph, a quiet monk with a red culotte and ruddy hair.
Aaron respected Randolph, he was often silent but held his convictions as though they were lain in concrete, and he could speak movingly about them if the mood took him. The two sat down in the clearing, Aaron splaying his legs out in front of him, Randolph hunching over and hugging his legs close to himself.
The two sat silently in the clearing together, contemplating the blue sky, which was filled occasionally with puffs of white cloud that drifted lazily over the treetops. Randolph set his gaze back down to the verdant grass.
Quickly, soundlessly, Aaron drew the sword that was strapped across his back. Randolph merely grunted as the sword slid into his back and out his front. Aaron gave the sword a brief twist, causing Randolph to jerk and gasp loudly, then withdrew the blade once more.
Randolph’s body, eyes wide and glazed over, collapsed back on the grass as though it had decided to sun itself. “Sorry buddy,” Aaron muttered to the corpse, “there was a price on your head.”
* * * *
“Barkeep, make that two brandies!” The rogue held up two fingers to emphasize his point, then laughed loudly. His hair was black and slicked back with a heavy dose of some odd gel. His eyes were chestnut brown and shimmered with a lust for life. His green dwarven leather was kept in fairly new condition, though it had its share of smudges where he’d taken a pounding before.
The barkeep grinned, caught up in the excitement of the impromptu celebration, and slid two brandies across the splintered wood counter. The rogue turned to another man sitting next to him. It was a younger rogue, dressed in common grey scout leather. He was also, apparently, the older rogue’s student.
The elder rogue turned to his disciple and held up one of the mugs the barkeeper had given them. “This, boy,” he announced, “is the finest alcohol money can buy. In these parts, anyway. Now, heed m’ words, there’s a proper way t’ drink this stuff too.” The rogue set the mug to his lips and talked carefully. “This ain’t the sorta stuff you can let dribble. You just can’t afford t’ lose any of it!”
The rogue returned his eyes to the bottom of his cup and finished half the brandy in one loud slurp. He banged the cup back down on the counter, causing a bit of the vile brew to leap into the air like a fish before returning to the strangely colored sea from which it came.
“Like that,” he concluded proudly.
The man’s student lifted his mug and clumsily imitated his mentor. A bit of the drink spilled down the side of the boy’s suit and his mentor let out a loud guffaw. The older man returned his hand to the mug’s handle, securing it tightly in his fist.
The rogue took another long draught, finishing off his brandy, and watched his student try a second time. Not so much liquid was lost in this slurp, and the rogue applauded loudly, causing several nearby drunks to break into a standing ovation for a reason they didn’t understand.
The elder rogue turned again to his student. “Now you pay yer tab,” he announced. “Watch.” He put two fingers into his mouth and whistled loudly. The barkeep turned and noticed him wave a “finished” to her, and she shuffled over. The rogue slammed several coins onto the table, the a little more than the amount he owed.
The barkeep smiled and thanked him. The rogue grinned over at his student and said loudly, “Yer welcome, m’am, and have a good evn’in!” The barkeep’s smile grew and she told him to have a good night as well, then picked up their mugs and returned to the other end of the little box she occupied.
A raucous cheer erupted from across the bar. The rogue looked over to see the source of the excitement. He saw the dancing girl performing a heady jig and eliciting shout after shout from her drunken audience. He motioned to his student and the two of them stood up.
“Now,” he said slyly to the boy, “It’s time for your next lesson.”
* * * *
The night was apparent in full now as Aaron made his way carefully through the streets of Rucesion. The air was cool, but comfortably so, and the stone of the streets had become easier to walk on. The buildings loomed like concrete phantoms over the shadows clouding the roads, their decrepit, creaking signs hanging on rusted metal poles.
Finally Aaron found the place he was searching for. A shadowed figure stood in the doorframe, holding the door open with one hand and beckoning to Aaron with the other. The figure’s eyes seemed to glow a sinister white in the half-light of the full moon.
Aaron looked doubtfully behind himself for a moment, as though he thought someone might be following him. He found there nothing but his quaking conscience.
II. A Trail of Bloody Footprints
A guard stood, staring at a parchment that had been tacked to the Rucesion board, and most of the other boards in Temuair. His turquoise hair melded nicely with his similarly-colored tabard, and a strange look had crossed his face and decided to take up residence there.
The parchment was a warning. It read:
To all citizens of Temuair—
Be on your guard. Less than a moon ago, a young monk by the name of Randolph was found in the woods. He was not entirely located: his head was not attached to his body. Authorities investigating the death said that there were no signs of struggle, rather, a clean sword wound was made directly through the boy’s middle.
The only other mark of attack is, of course, the missing head. Aaron, the monk’s mentor, is reportedly devastated and begs for any information anyone might have regarding the death. Pigeon service to both Aaron and legal officials with information about the crime is free.
Walk safely, citizens.
Several people passed by, some peering curiously at the notice. The young guard continued to stand, motionless.
* * * *
The wind blew sullenly through the trees, rustling their branches quietly. The Altar of Mileth stood tall and strong on even this cloudy day, when most people remained in bed for rain or laziness. At the large offering stone stood two lone forms, their hair whipped by the wind.
If one had seen them earlier, one might have recognized their look; they were the rogues in the tavern but two days ago. The elder was Adrian, his younger student Leon. Leon had the same orange-red hair Randolph had possessed, though it was pulled above his eyes more.
Adrian reached into his rucksack and extracted two beothaich deums. He handed one solemnly to Leon. Adrian looked quietly across at Leon, then up at the great stone gaze of the statue. He said quietly, “We’re here to offer homage to the gods and to the memory of the young monk who died not moons ago.”
Leon nodded silently, and the two of them set their beothaich deums in the altar. The potions sat for an instant, then were enveloped in a flash of light and sucked away to gods-knew-where.
The wind picked up for a moment, and Adrian and Leon braced themselves against the unexpected gust. Just as suddenly the wind died down and settled back into the moping breeze that had been caressing them seconds before.
* * * *
Nearly three double-moons had passed since Randolph’s death. Aaron sat in another remote corner of the woods with Gabrielle. Gabrielle had oaken hair, pulled up in buns around her ears. She wore a nicely tailored cuirass, and a quiet smile on her lips.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Gabrielle said happily.
“Not as beautiful as you,” Aaron grinned. He was a master of cliché, but his was the sort of cliché that caused women to swoon and fall hopelessly in love with him. Gabrielle did just this.
Gabrielle’s smile widened and she looked over at Aaron, already feeling a fondness for this charismatic—and handsome—man. Aaron gave Gabrielle another generic, endearing compliment and she giggled like a little girl.
Their conversation continued in this vein, and by the end of several hours’ time Gabrielle was in love with Aaron. She leaned over and caught him up in a passionate kiss, which he returned with such feeling. As the two were locked together Aaron reached into his belt for a small dagger he’d hidden there.
Then Aaron moved his arm around Gabrielle’s back, dagger in hand, and towards her neck.
* * * *
The next day a new warning was to be found on the Temuairian notice boards. It related that there had been a second killing and urged citizens to travel in numbers, and especially not to be in a remote spot alone. There was almost no information to be had about Gabrielle’s death, except that there once again seemed to be no struggle and her lover did not seem outwardly affected by her death. Of course, Temuairian psychologists reasoned, this was his way of showing grief.
At the small message slate in Mileth City, the grass rustled quietly, unaware of the surrounding world.
* * * *
In the dark of deep-night, a shadowed form slunk towards a house in Mileth. It was the house of Gabrielle’s lover, and the only residence with candles still burning in a few of its windows. The night was black, the moon obscured by unmoving clouds.
In this demonic half-death a form advanced slowly on the house. The door was very slightly ajar, and the figure could easily push it open and slip in. Suddenly the form stopped moving. Aaron looked at the door, sensing again that he was being watched.
And once again, all he saw behind him was darkness.
III. New Toys for Fate
Adrian and Leon offered up a second pair of beothaich deums in memory of Gabrielle. Again the day was cloudy—so many days seemed to be dark as of late. Adrian reflected sadly to himself, Such is the age we live in.
* * * *
Aaron walked broodingly among the citizens of Mileth, listening to the calls of peasants and beggars—occasionally one and the same. His very demeanor scared off these vagabonds and curs; even the respectable did not approach him.
Aaron silently passed building after building, not even glancing up at the imposing visage of the altar, which, today, seemed to have a reprimanding look on its face, partially stern and partially as though keeping a steady vigil against evil for the citizens under its shadow.
Tucked away in his reverie, Aaron did not notice the two rogues coming down the path towards him, and, so involved in their conversation were they, that neither of them noticed him either. That is, not until the three of them collided with a resounding oof!
Aaron spat curses and rubbed his head. He whipped around and grabbed the elder rogue by the collar. “You!” he raged.
“Woah, woah,” the rogue said, holding his hands in a motion of good intentions. “Didn’t mean t’ run into ya, pal. Simple mistake.” He chuckled, a contrived sound that fooled no one. Aaron stared daggers at the man a moment longer and then every part of him seemed to relax. He set the rogue down and backed off.
Now the rogue’s companion, a second rogue, came forward. He was dressed in scout leather that he seemed to be about ready to outgrow. He regarded Aaron silently and looked over at the elder rogue, who was dusting himself off from the encounter.
“Anyway,” the man said, sounding quite confident and unshaken, “Who’re you?”
“I might put the same question to you,” Aaron said coldly.
The rogue laughed, for real this time. “Fair enough. I’m Adrian, this ‘ere’s me student Leon.” Leon merely nodded at his mentor’s assailant.
“I’m Aaron,” the warrior responded, still little hint of feeling in his voice.
“In way of apology, lemme buy you a drink,” the rogue said genially.
“I don’t drink,” Aaron responded, still eyeing his new acquaintance.
“Shame,” Adrian said. “But the tavern’s a good place anyway.”
“You only think that once you’re drunk,” Aaron muttered.
“Ahh, got no sense of adventure?” Adrian said teasingly. Aaron was a bit miffed but tried to control his temper.
“Leave me alone,” he snorted, and walked on.
When Aaron was out of earshot, Adrian turned to his student. “Well,” he said amicably, “affable fellow, isn’t he?”
* * * *
Over the next moons Aaron, Adrian, and Leon met frequently in the streets of Mileth. A strange relationship it was indeed, and Adrian took note of Aaron’s volatile temper.
He’s nearly killed several people—myself included—for minor slips of courtesy, Adrian thought to himself. Shortly after such an incident, Leon turned to his esteemed mentor. “Master, I think something’s odd about that Aaron,” he said carefully.
“You and me both,” Adrian agreed, and they watched the brooding warrior disappear down the street.
* * * *
“It’s been nearly three double-moons since Gabrielle’s murder,” Leon observed one day.
“It has,” Adrian confirmed. “But remember, her murder was not till nearly three double-moons after Randolph’s killing.” The two of them shivered despite a warm day.
Aaron suddenly seemed to appear out of nowhere. “Hello, boys,” he said quietly.
“Ah, greets,” Adrian said, waving despite the fact that Aaron was only a few feet away.
Aaron cut right to the core of his business. “Adrian—do you enjoy the hunt?”
“Sometimes,” Adrian responded guardedly. The way Aaron expressed the statement carried far more meaning than was seen at face value.
“Good. I know the perfect little place to learn a few things about combat,” Aaron said, a smirk beginning to form at the edges of his lips. “Want to come?”
Adrian shot a glance over at Leon, whose eyes said he was thinking the same thing. “Alright,” Adrian said carefully.
Aaron eyed the two of them briefly. “Wonderful.”
IV. Daemon Rising
In due time the little party arrived at the entrance to the Mileth Crypt.
“Down there,” Aaron nodded towards the giant earthen capsule rising from the ground. Adrian and Leon began to advance. “No,” Aaron interrupted. “The boy stays.” Adrian looked back at Leon, who nodded. Adrian looked this time at Aaron. The mighty warrior took a step inside and called back, “I’ll be waiting.”
* * * *
The crypt was dank and humid from the previous night’s rain. The walls were covered in ever-expanding blankets of moss, and tiny rodents scrabbled around, scattering loose pebbles and dirt.
“It’s this way,” Aaron said, guiding Adrian past tombs and treasure chests. They descended floor after floor. Strangely enough, almost no creatures bothered them during their trip, and those foolish enough to get in their way Aaron handily dispatched with his battle sword.
Finally, after nearly two hours of walking around cold stone and down stairs, Aaron announced, “Here we are.”
Adrian looked around himself. Nothing seemed much different here than up on the first floor. “What level are we on?” he asked Aaron.
“The twenty-second,” the warrior responded.
“We grow near to the true darkness that lurks below,” Adrian said, starting to tremble a little.
“Don’t worry,” Aaron assured him, “We’re not going any deeper.” His voice grew dangerous. “Right here is just fine.” With the smooth sound of sliding steel Aaron extracted his battle sword from its sheath. He stood for a moment, staring intensely at Adrian, who did not so much as blink under his withering gaze.
Aaron took a step forward, slowly. There was no sound other than the occasional rat scuttling for cover. Aaron pulled his sword closer to his center, readying himself for combat. This time there would be signs of a struggle.
Adrian could tell what was happening, had been expecting it. He drew a dagger and dropped into a fighting stance. He began to slide forward. “Ah ah,” Aaron said, waving a finger like a mother scolding her child. “Naughty naughty.” Adrian simply stared at Aaron, whose eyes were now sparking as though he were enjoying himself.
“You killed them, didn’t you?” Adrian asked stonily.
“About damn time someone figured it out,” Aaron responded gruffly. “The men in the big suits haven’t got a clue how to solve a crime.”
“You mean this entire thing was a game?” Adrian asked in disbelief.
“Not at all,” Aaron said casually. “That was a bonus. I got paid for both those killings.”
“Randolph was legally clean, but he’d had some run-ins with a local gang. Their little wanna-be assassins couldn’t pull it off, so they put a price on his head. I just happened to be in town when they did.” Adrian stared at Aaron, shocked that a man could run a friend through for a couple of coins.
“Gabrielle’s lover suspected she was cheating on him. If he wasn’t right at first, he was when I was through with her.” He laughed, an empty, grating sound. Adrian’s mouth moved but no sound came out.
“Speechless? They were, too.” He smirked. “And pretty soon you will be. Permanently.”
V. A Candle in the Darkness
Even the rats were silent as Aaron fixed his baleful gaze on Adrian. Finally the rogue regained awareness. His eyes focused on the warrior in front of him, who was taking slow steps forward, sword at the ready.
Adrian looked at the man, and suddenly splayed out his arms in a T shape. “You wanna kill me?” he smirked. “Go ahead. If that’s the worst thing that happens to me today I can be happy.”
Aaron stopped a moment, surprised at the audacity of the man in front of him. Then a snarl curled his lips and he resumed his advance.
“There’s only one more thing I wanna know,” Adrian piped up.
Aaron stopped and grinned sadistically at his next victim. “Shoot.”
Adrian let a cocky grin cross his face. “Why do the evil villains always reveal their plans in the end?”
Aaron let out a laugh, chilling though it was. “If we didn’t tell someone there’d be no one to write them down, would there?” He hefted his sword again and started forth once more.
Aaron was but four paces from Adrian, savoring his victory and his next murder. Rewards aside, there was a sadistic pleasure in this.
Suddenly, a single word from Adrian split the air. “Why?”
Aaron stopped in his tracks. The syllable seemed to echo throughout the crypt, reverberating off walls and forgotten stone tombs. The word cavorted about in Aaron’s mind, confounding his pleasure and striking hard into the open wounds of his conscience.
Aaron looked hard at Adrian, who was resolutely holding his prone pose, doing nothing more than staring straight back.
Without warning Aaron fell to his knees, staring at the dark ground. A single tear tumbled down his soft cheek, leaving a damp trail and shattering silently on the stone.
For what seemed like an eternity, Aaron was locked within himself, grappling with the soul-bending question Adrian had doled out to him. Finally he felt a gentle hand come to rest on his shoulder, and he looked up. Standing above him was Adrian, looking down. The rogue’s face was sad, but a glimmer of light still sparkled in his eyes.
Adrian helped Aaron to his feet. Then he motioned with a nod of his head, and the two began a long, relieving climb.
VI. The Dawn is Breaking
Clouds were still dominating the sky when the two emerged silently from the crypt. Leon was still standing there, watching silently for his mentor to return, as he had known he would.
“I know what happens next,” Aaron said, resigned to his fate. “But before we visit the burgess, I have something I have to do.” Adrian nodded, and the three went to the Mileth altar, where the stone statue’s face seemed to have softened.
Aaron reverently removed the battle sword his ancestors had carried from its sheath. He turned to face the altar full on. “I have profaned this blade with my actions,” he said, more to the statue than to the company around him. He said a brief prayer for the blade and asked his ancestors to forgive him. Then, lovingly, he placed the sword on the offering stone.
A quiet white light seemed to reach out to accept to sword, and swiftly it, too, was gone, and around Aaron was a bright flash of light. A smile, quiet but satisfied, crossed the warrior’s face.
“I have done my duty,” he said solemnly, and the three of them began back down the road.
* * * *
Well, ladies and gents, that’s just what happened. Aaron resigned to tell it all to me, even if he was silent to you. Can’t explain that, he’s a funny man. But I think this’ll do for incriminating evidence.
Glad I could be of service, and happy that pigeon’s still free.